When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan

Queer history is difficult to navigate. Often hidden and without personal identifying terms, LGBTQIA+ individuals from the 1960s and prior have maneuvered as afterthoughts in broader narratives. Yet, as author Hugh Ryan proves, meticulous research can bring these pre-Stonewall stories back into view.

When Brooklyn Was Queer manages to fill a gap in historical research while maintaining an engrossing narrative. Ryan identifies the Brooklyn waterfront as the true beginning of the gay identity with Walt Whitman and the publication of Leaves of Grass. At the same time, Brooklyn was evolving as a port, becoming a center for not only sailors and factory workers, but sex workers, performance artists, and a host of other groups. With such a confined space comes the ability for queer individuals to begin exploring their identities.

And this is really where Ryan’s work excels. He has no problem discussing some of the major queer players, from Truman Capote to Carson McCullers. But when he shines a light on everyday individuals, this book launches into another tier. From lovers secretly meeting on the beach to queer individuals learning they’re not alone, each of their experiences is compiled with deep respect and care. There’s a long discussion about sex work that grows with the expansion of Brooklyn, and the focus on Loop-the-Loop, a trans sex worker, is a particular highlight.

Ryan is careful of exploring the spectrum of queer identities while noting limitations he discovered. The vast majority of experiences he relays come from cis white men, denoting the privileges that existed for gay men (that still continue). However, by uncovering the records that were available, Ryan has crafted the most wonderfully diverse LGBTQIA+ history that is currently available.

Perhaps most remarkably, Ryan’s work, while honing in on a very specific location in the United States, feels universal. These stories comprise the sometimes flamboyant, sometimes tragic, yet always unique history of queer America.


Title: When Brooklyn Was Queer
Author: Hugh Ryan
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: March 05, 2019
Classification: LGBTQIA+, Nonfiction

Ryan’s Website | Publisher’s Page | Goodreads


Note: I received a free ARC of this book through NetGalley.

10 thoughts on “When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan

  1. Good review, Christopher. Given the history of gays being “in the closet,” I am surprised that his research yielded so much information. I guess people find a way to get their story out, regardless of content and time period.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review, Christopher! I’d been on the fence about reading this, but the archival research sounds excellent. I’ll have to check this out sometime.

    Liked by 1 person

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